Why the Bulls' shot distribution is a sign of promising things to come

Why the Bulls' shot distribution is a sign of promising things to come

The most important takeaway from the Bulls’ preseason loss to the Milwaukee Bucks wasn’t the point guard competition. It wasn’t Daniel Gafford’s energy. It wasn’t Denzel Valentine looking healthy and comfortable from beyond the arc. It wasn’t a defense that dearly misses Wendell Carter Jr.

It was the team’s shot distribution.

Before diving in, the obvious caveat here is that Monday’s shot attempts are a one-game sample size, and the location of shots came in a home loss to Milwaukee’s B-Team. But in an era of unparalleled offensive analytics, there’s a glimmer of hope that the Bulls are hopping aboard the analytics train and riding it into a more efficient offense.

The Bulls attempted 98 shots on Monday. Of those, 40 came in the restricted area and 38 were 3-pointers. That’s nearly 80% of their attempts coming from the most efficient spots on the floor, and that percentage would have been higher had it not been for their 38 free-throw attempts (another sign of positive efficiency).

The end result of those looks was just eight midrange (MR) attempts in a game played at 112 possessions. Of those attempts, the only make came midway through the first quarter when Otto Porter took a step inside the 3-point line and buried a jumper over center Brook Lopez, who was on his heels and giving the Bulls’ swingman plenty of space to shoot.

Those eight attempts were an excellent sign for a Bulls team that took far too many MR attempts last season at an ugly clip; in 2019, the Bulls ranked 12th in MR attempts (14.5 per game) and shot just 37.1% on those looks, the third worst mark in the league behind Atlanta and Miami.

Zach LaVine and Otto Porter played just a combined 39 minutes, but they took just one midrage jumper between the two of them. Last year Porter averaged 4.6 midrange attempts per game, while LaVine averaged 3.2 per game.

Certainly Jim Boylen deserves credit for practicing what he preached in the offseason, that the Bulls would run more and attempt more 3-pointers. But he deserves equal praise for his offseason hires, employing former Brooklyn Nets assistant Chris Fleming and former Rockets assistant Roy Rogers.

It’s no coincidence that those two teams ranked last (Houston; 4.8) and third-to-last (Brooklyn; 8.2) in midrange attempts per game last season. In fact, Houston and Brooklyn ranked last and second-to-last in midrange attempts in 2017 and 2018, too. (Ironically enough, Houston and Brooklyn are also ranked last and second-to-last in midrange attempts very early in the 2020 preseason.)

Those principles and offensive philosophies are carrying over to a Bulls roster that’s loaded with above-average 3-point shooters and some of the game’s best players around the rim.

"We hope it's sustainable," Boylen said Tuesday at the Advocate Center. "It might not be 38 (3-point attempts) and 38 (free throw attempts) every night. Historically, there are more fouls in preseason games. So I don't want to overreact to it. It is nice when your team does some of the things that you emphasize. Getting downhill, getting to the free-throw line has been an emphasis.

"Getting more 3s, getting good 3s---the way we charted it, we had eight wide-open 3s we missed. I think we had games last year where we took eight. That was a joke.

"We got a lot of work to do, but it is nice when some of the things you emphasize come to fruition. And we're going to keep emphasizing them."

And while the sample-size snobs will come out in droves for analyzing one preseason game in which the Bulls’ core players didn’t play their full allotment of minutes – and Wendell Carter and Luke Kornet, two expected rotation players, were out – the Bulls were already trending in the right direction last season. Consider the Bulls’ midrange attempts per game by month under Boylen:

December: 15.7
January: 13.8
February: 12.8
March: 12.8
April: 11.8

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the Bulls also averaged more shot attempts in the restricted area each month under Boylen. They went from 28.1 RA attempts per game in December all the way to 36.6 attempts per game in April. In the 17-game span with a healthy Otto Porter on the roster (he played in 15 of them), the Bulls averaged 13.1 MR attempts (15th fewest) and 31.1 RA attempts (12th most).

There’s a misconception that midrange shots are bad shots. That isn’t the case. There’s a time and place for them. The Golden State Warriors’ juggernaut offense ranked second in midrange attempts per game last season. Last year, five of the top six teams in midrange attempts per game made the postseason, and eight of the top 10 teams in midrange field goal percentage qualified for the postseason.

Midrange success is a result of being elite in the other two areas (at the rim and from beyond the arc). Teams either pack the paint to defend against drives to the rim or over-defend on 3-point attempts, allowing space in the midrange for open looks.

Consider Porter’s jumper over Lopez. It was a clear mismatch on a switch, and the Bucks center knew it. He gave Porter space to step into a one-dribble jumper that, despite being a midrange shot, was a high percentage look for one of the best shooters in basketball.

There were bad looks, too. Lauri Markkanen took a contested baseline fadeaway jumper, and Coby White took two errant jumpers early in the shot clock that probably shouldn’t have been taken. Over the course of a 48-minute game, those will happen. But the Bulls appeared to make a concerted effort to minimize them by attacking the rim, moving the ball on the perimeter and finding open 3-point shooters.

It’s something to watch as the preseason progresses, and especially once players like Carter (elite around the rim) and Kornet (one of those above-average marksmen) are back in the fold. It was just one preseason game, but it was a promising one in terms of shot distribution.

Chandler Hutchison (sore shins) inactive against Pistons, with no timetable on return

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Chandler Hutchison (sore shins) inactive against Pistons, with no timetable on return

If you thought the Bulls were strapped on the wing before, buckle up.

In the run-up to the Bulls' matchup with the Pistons, head coach Jim Boylen announced that Chandler Hutchison, who has started the last five games in place of an injured Otto Porter Jr., will not play against Detroit after experiencing soreness in his sins. 

"Hutch is out. He has very sore shins, and doesn't feel comfortable going," Boylen said after Wednesday's shootaround. "He came in yesterday and it flared up for him, and today it was very sore. We held him out of shootaround, he did a couple things and those things bothered him. So, I'm not gonna put anybody in jeopardy of hurting something else because something's hurt. I'm not doing that."

Boylen wasn't ready to commit to a decision on who will start in Hutchison's place, though he confirmed Shaq Harrison, Denzel Valentine and Ryan Arcidiacono will all be considered. He did rule out the possibility of sliding Thad Young into the starting lineup.

As for a timetable on Hutchison's return? For the moment, it's unclear, but Boylen didn't speak of the injury as a minor setback.

"He's out tonight, and that's about as much as I can tell you," Boylen said. "It doesn't seem to be a quick fix, I don't want to give you a timetable there... We hope he's back as soon as possible."

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Derrick Rose: If load management would have been around, I probably would have still been a Chicago Bull right now

Derrick Rose: If load management would have been around, I probably would have still been a Chicago Bull right now

In an interview with NBC Sports Chicago’s Will Perdue, Derrick Rose reflected on a range of personal and Bulls-related topics — from his success in Chicago, to his maturation since leaving, to his friendship with Joakim Noah.

But perhaps the most poignant — and relevant to the present-day NBA — excerpt of their sit-down came in Rose’s assessment of the concept of load management. That strategy has been employed by a number of the game’s brightest stars to both mitigate against the risk of injury and keep themselves fresh for potential postseason action.

“It was just a different time in the sports world, period,” Rose said. “Now, we have the term load management. I don’t think I would have taken it as far as Kawhi [Leonard] as far as they’re really being cautious about his injury or whatever he has. But if load management would have been around, who knows? I probably would have still been a Chicago Bull right now.”

His invoking of the Bulls will catch eyes, but really, Rose is assessing the state of his basketball legacy even beyond Chicago. The latter part of his Bulls tenure, after all, was fraught with injuries, controversies and a strained relationship with the media. That followed him in the years after his departure and marred the perception of his entire career, a career that — at its beginning — was on track to being on par with the all-time greats.

Rose addressed his guardedness with the press, stemming from speculation and criticism regarding his decision to sit out the 2012-13 season following surgery to repair the first of his three ACL tears after the 2012 playoffs.

“Once I got all that thrown on me and the way people were like coming at me, like you said I wanted to be stubborn. I wasn’t going to change who I was,” Rose said. “Why should I elaborate on an answer when I know you’re going to kill me in the paper the next day? Where I know that you don’t like me as a person, why should I give you my real answer? No, I’m going to act like I don’t want to talk to you. And that’s that.”

But Rose doesn’t appear to hold grudges, saying to Perdue that everything he did, he did in the interests of himself and his family. As a potential poster-child of the ‘what ifs’ that the load management era will evince, he offered detailed advice for Zion Williamson — flush with potential, hotly-anticipated, but already burdened with a meniscus tear that has yet prevented him from making his regular-season NBA debut. At one point among the most explosive athletes in the game and a subject of high expectations, Rose can somewhat relate to Williamson’s experience.

“First is your weight,” Rose said. “I remember playing for the USA teams and I think my second time we were going and seeing all these doctors and I was getting all these MRIs and I was still feeling pain in my knees certain days. It all came down to my weight. Nobody said nothing about my weight. I think I was around 212 or 214 (pounds) at the time. I was too heavy. It was the little things. I had to watch my diet. Once I watched my diet, I was fine. That was something I didn’t have to worry about.

“But Zion is in his own lane. Just being that heavy, playing the way that he plays, he’s explosive. He’s an athlete I think nobody never saw before. His path is going to be totally different than mine, you know what I mean? He has to, for one, learn the league. I had a chance to learn the league, play through my mistakes and I got injured Year 3 or 4. He got injured right away. So he has to learn his body right away, learn the league, learn what his skills are, work on his skills.”

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